Salif Keita
Metro Blue / Capital

There's no doubt by the end of the first few bars of "Bolon" that Salif Keita is back with a vengeance. While many other major stars of the 80s "Afro-pop" scene have been searching for their acoustic roots, Keita hammers out a heavy, funk-riddled yet totally Malian groove produced by Vernon Reid and driven by an American rhythm section of kit drums and bass. Keita is forging his own sound again, a modern sound to carry his uniquely powerful voice, but this recording brings him to a grittier sound, less dependant on programs and synth licks. Recorded in New York, Paris and Bamako, there are echoes traditional Mali, of his 70s pop sound with The Rail Band and Ambassadors and the lush and heavily electronic sound he developed on his first solo recording, Soro. On this latter front, his sorrowful vocal on "Tomorrow (Sadio)" is chilling, punctuated by drifting electronics and sharp hit-and-run lines of kora. There are surprises, too. You'd expect "Tolon Willie (The Party's On)," a tune that features a strangely understated vocal donation from Grace Jones, to be one of those trivial "groove tunes" that litter the African pop landscape. Instead it is a irresistible mix of looping rhythmic structures and almost mystical, floating melodic lines. This is where Keita has always shown his strength, by taking what could have been cliché and making it personal and unpredictable. With Keita it's not always a successful fusion, and some of these songs fall into the trap of sounding too contrived and market-ready. But with such a voice, and a willingness to explore, there are moments on Papa that transcend expectation, that find that balance of technology and tradition that he is known for. - Cliff Furnald

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